Just how can rankings help you identify colleges and universities that are right for you? Certainly, the college experience consists of a host of intangibles that cannot be reduced to mere numbers. But for families, the U.S. News rankings provide an excellent starting point because they offer the opportunity to judge the relative quality of institutions based on widely accepted indicators of excellence. You can compare different schools' numbers at a glance, and looking at unfamiliar schools that are ranked near schools you know can be a good way to broaden your search.
Of course, many factors other than those we measure will figure in your decision, including the feel of campus life, activities, sports, academic offerings, location, cost, and availability of financial aid. But if you combine the information in this book with college visits, interviews, and your own intuition, our rankings can be a powerful tool in your quest for college.
For the seventh consecutive year, U.S. News helps by spotlighting schools with outstanding examples of eight types of academic programs that have been shown to enhance learning, including first-year experiences, learning communities, writing in the disciplines, senior capstone, study abroad, internships or cooperative education, opportunities for undergraduate research, and service learning.
Pick a category. The U.S. News rankings system rests on two pillars. It relies on quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it's based on our nonpartisan view of what matters in education.
How does the methodology work? First, schools are categorized by mission, derived from the basic Carnegie classification, and, in some cases, by region.
The national universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master's and Ph.D. programs, and emphasize faculty research. The liberal arts colleges focus almost exclusively on undergraduate education. They award at least 50 percent of their degrees in the arts and sciences. The universities-master's offer a broad scope of undergraduate degrees and some master's degree programs but few, if any, doctoral programs. The baccalaureate colleges focus on undergraduate education but grant fewer than 50 percent of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines. The baccalaureate colleges include institutions where at least 10 percent of the undergraduate degrees awarded are bachelor's degrees. The universities-master's and baccalaureate colleges categories are further subdivided by geography—North, South, Midwest, and West.
Next, we gather data from each college for up to 15 indicators of academic excellence. Each factor is assigned a weight that reflects our judgment about how much a measure matters. Finally, the colleges in each category are ranked against their peers, based on their composite weighted score.
Schools are unranked and listed separately for America's Best Colleges 2009 if they have indicated that they don't use the SAT or ACT in admission decisions for first-time, first-year, degree-seeking applicants (or, in a few cases, if they didn't receive enough responses on the peer assessment survey to allow us to use their peer score as part of the overall ranking). Other schools were unranked for the following reasons: a total enrollment of fewer than 200 students; a vast proportion of nontraditional students; no first-year students (these are sometimes called upper-division schools). We did not rank private, for-profit universities; nor did we rank a few specialized schools in arts, business, or engineering.
Sources, sources... Most of the data come from the colleges—and U.S. News takes pains to ensure their accuracy. This year, 91.4 percent of the 1,476 colleges and universities we surveyed returned their statistical information. We obtained missing data from sources such as the American Association of University Professors, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Council for Aid to Education, and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Data that did not come from this year's survey are footnoted. Estimates, which are never published by U.S. News, may be used when schools fail to report particular data points. Missing data are reported as N/A in the ranking tables.
The indicators we use to capture academic quality fall into seven categories: assessment by administrators at peer institutions, retention of students, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, alumni giving, and (for national universities and liberal arts colleges) "graduation rate performance," the difference between the proportion of students expected to graduate and the proportion who actually do. The indicators include input measures that reflect a school's student body, its faculty, and its financial resources, along with outcome measures that signal how well the institution does its job of educating students. Following are detailed descriptions of the indicators used to measure academic quality: